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Snowmachiner breaks back in attempted jump after Arctic Man

Michelle Theriault Boots

Doctors are hopeful a 21-year-old North Pole man, who broke his back attempting a snowmachine jump at the Arctic Man Classic on Friday, will walk again, his family said.

Alex Lemelin suffered serious nerve damage in the dramatic crash, which happened hours after the official Arctic Man snowmachine and ski competition in the Hoodoo Mountain southeast of Fairbanks ended on Friday.

His family says the event -- which draws crowds of up to 13,000 to the area for a sometimes raucous week of snowmachining, skiing and parties -- is not to blame for what happened.

"Arctic Man had nothing to do with my son's injury," said his father, David Lemelin. "My son has been an aggressive rider for a long time."

The Lemelin family had been attending Arctic Man for a decade.

"It's family time for us," he said.

On Friday, the snow was good and the weather was sunny, said David Lemelin.

About an hour after the Arctic Man Classic ended, Alex Lemelin attempted a jump that was "too big, too fast," according to his father.

"He landed very, very hard. And he broke his back."

On-scene nurses rushed to the scene to stabilize Lemelin, who only briefly lost consciousness.

He had to be transported by snowmachine several miles to a base camp, where an ambulance was waiting for him.

David Lemelin said local lodge owner Alan Echols groomed the trail as the injured snowmachiner was carried out, smoothing jarring bumps.

Then Lemelin was driven to the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital by ambulance. The drive took hours.

"I guess it took two and a half or three hours," his father said. "Time kind of stood still for a while."

Doctors there initially told Lemelin's family the prognosis was grim.

"We were told that he had a broken back and shattered spinal cord and he'd never walk again," Lemelin said.

But doctors at Providence Alaska Medical Center, where Lemelin was transferred to early Saturday morning, are hopeful about Lemelin's long-term prognosis.

They say his spinal cord is intact but that he has suffered severe nerve damage, especially to his left leg, according to his father.

"The long-term prognosis is optimistic that he will walk again," he said.

Now his family is tackling a pressing problem: Medical expenses.

Alex Lemelin's insurance expired on his 21st birthday, which was Thursday, just a day before the accident, David Lemelin said.

Before the accident Alex Lemelin had been training in the State of Alaska's heavy-equipment operator apprentice program. He has a one-year-old daughter and a fiancee.

Lemelin was not the only person seriously injured at Arctic Man on Friday.

Ira Edwards -- who is well-known in the Anchorage ski and adaptive sports community -- broke his femur in a crash during the sit-ski competition.

The impact of a bump tore him from his sit-ski equipment.

"I was just tumbling free-fall," he said.

Edwards was paralyzed while at work clearing hazard trees from a ski trail at the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area in 2010.

He has no feeling from the knees down, he said from his Fairbanks hospital room on Sunday. So he felt his leg break.

"I have sensation about my knees. So it definitely hurt," he said.

Doctors put a titanium rod in his leg and told him to expect 6-8 weeks of "low activity."

He had been training for the adaptive ski race for a year, he said.

"I am not going to stop skiing," he said. "Not even close."

David Lemelin said his son is still at Providence Alaska Medical Center awaiting more news on his prognosis.

The upside to the injury, he said, is a wave of community kindness the family has felt since it happened.

He and his wife were at an Anchorage Olive Garden on Sunday when a waitress overheard their conversation about the crash and said their dinner would be free. She also offered food for their son in the hospital.

"There are good and kind and caring people still out there," he said.

David Lemelin said his son's goal is to snowmachine again.

"I'm just thankful he's alive."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com